MECCA Meets… Rob Calcraft, founder of Cultured

Rob Calcraft is something of a skincare trailblazer. More than two decades ago, he co-founded REN Clean Skincare; with its commitment to sustainably sourced, naturally-derived ingredients and formulas suitable for even the most sensitive skin types, it was very much at the vanguard of the ‘clean beauty’ movement – before there even was a clean beauty movement.

Now, it comes as no surprise that his latest venture, Cultured, is breaking more new ground; this time in the realm of microbiome-focused skincare.

Here, Calcraft talks all things skincare and science with his trademark charm – and a slight detour to 1970s punks, Powderfinger and Princess Jasmine!

What is your very first memory of skincare?

“Through the hazy mists of time, I see my dad’s bar of Pears soap and my mum’s Imperial Leather. I then remember teenage zits, Oxy 10 [Acne Gel] and the pain of breakouts. Skincare was [UK pharmacy chain] Boots and problems or a posh beauty counter in a town 30 miles away – it felt as far as Mars!

“My ‘a-ha’ moment (not the Take On Me band) I remember clearly; I was 30-something, sitting in my bath by the window, sun streaming in, late afternoon. I reached over and stole my wife’s Clarins face wash – oh my God, suddenly I got it! The texture, fragrance, feel, ritual, effect – a new world opened. I had the same feeling with a bottle of rioja, where one sip turned wine from a way of getting drunk to nature distilled in a glass [laughs].”

What were your skincare habits like, growing up?

“In the UK countryside in the 1970s, no such thing existed – it was zit mitigation until punk happened and then it was mascara, eyeliner and lip gloss, but I don’t remember how I took it off.”

What inspired you to bring Cultured into the world?

“It’s the microbiome, innit! After REN [Clean Skincare], I wasn’t thinking of ever putting on my metaphorical lab coat again; I thought my skincare days were over – so I’m still a little bit shocked to be the ageing parent of a brand ‘toddler’ once again! Why? Well, I have always been interested in health and science, and read I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong. It was – and is – mind-blowing. It reconfigures our understanding of the world and ourselves by giving an insight into our newly discovered relationship with microbes and bacteria. The gut biome led to the skin microbiome.

“The discovery of the skin microbiome has changed forever what we know about skin and how it works. It’s a bona fide scientific revolution. It’s the biggest thing to ever happen to skincare – it’s huge, bigger than Powderfinger, even! This was what set us off on the Cultured journey.

“We wanted to channel this scientific revolution and bring the benefit of happier microbiomes and healthier skin to the world. Plus, my kids left home and told me I needed to get a life [laughs]!”

How long did it take to get Cultured from conception to delivery, and what were your biggest challenges along the way?

“The gestation period was probably two years – a mixture of joy and pain. Getting up to speed with the science, finding the raw materials and the actives, formulation, formulation, formulation. Packs, pumps, compatibility, wanting what didn’t exist, trying to create it. Doing anything new from scratch is difficult, but hugely fun.

"Challenges? In the words of Princess Jasmine, it’s a whole new world! It’s a new way of thinking about skin and about how to care for it, which means it’s hard to do and explain.”

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What is the skin microbiome?

“There is still a common belief that your skin is just a collection of dead cells acting as an inert mechanical barrier to the world (what I call ‘skin flat-Earthers’). The reality is that your skin is very much alive. Your microbiome is the invisible eco-system of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi and viruses, sometimes called microbiota) that live on and in your skin. You’re actually a ‘mini rainforest’!"

What does skin with a healthy microbiome look and feel like?

“Not to be trite, but skin with a healthy microbiome is likely to look damn healthy – clearer, better hydrated. My experience of Cultured is that (although this obviously differs person to person) it gives a different type of glow – not the scrubbed, acid-peeled glow, but a best-your-skin-can-look type of glow. A happy, ‘in love’ glow!

“How does skin feel? Stronger, more resilient and confident – if skin can be confident [laughs]! My weird feeling is that skin feels like it ‘fits’ better, like wearing a brilliant jacket that makes you walk and behave differently. I think basically you feel more at one with your skin, that you’re in sync. Sorry, got a bit carried away there!”

How can you tell if your microbiome or skin barrier is compromised?

“Dry skin, tight skin, sensitive skin, dull skin, reactive skin, redness, breakouts and premature ageing (yes, that too!) can all be associated with an unhappy and poorly functioning microbiome and skin barrier. I say ‘associated with’ because the leap between correlation and causation is a difficult jump to prove."

What are Cultured’s hero ingredients, and how do they work?

“The microbiome revolution has produced a new era of skincare actives and a new world of possibility in terms of effectiveness. They really are a gamechanger. These actives come from the world of biotechnology and are listed as prebiotics, postbiotics and ferments.

“The first is a prebiotic Inulin active derived from chicory and agave. This safeguards the microbiome from destructive preservatives, and helps the microbiome form a hydrating film that delivers faster, deeper and longer lasting hydration than hyaluronic acid.

“And we have an active isolated from micro-algae which works as a ‘skin superfood'. Its prebiotic action works to support balance in the microbiome, so skin appears clearer, calmer and less prone to sensitivity. All our actives are scientifically substantiated with clinical evidence of proof of claims.”

What is the difference between good bacteria and bad bacteria? Should we not be trying to eliminate all bacteria from the skin?

“There is not really such a thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ bacteria – bacteria can be good or bad, depending on how dominant they are within the microbiome population. The important thing is balance.
For example, take Cultibacterium acnes. It is known to play a vital role in skin health; however, it uses sebum as a source of energy and nutrients, so in teenaged skin – where sebum production jumps – it suddenly has more food, so it overgrows and becomes dominant causing (you guessed it) acne! So, balance and harmony of the bacteria is key.

“Regarding eliminating all bacteria from the skin – you’d wipe out your microbiome, disrupt the skin’s ecosystem, trash the skin barrier, leading to dry, flaky, cracked and potentially infected skin. Bacteria are key to skin health – be nice to them [laughs]!”

Are there any ingredients we won’t see in Cultured formulas? If so, why not?

“We are not fans of ‘no’ lists. Things like pH and concentrations of ingredients matter more than the ingredients themselves, most of the time. We’re more interested in what’s in it rather than what isn’t – having said all that, we don’t add fragrance and would probably win in a ‘clean’ skincare shoot-out!”

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Is there a certain skin type, life stage or skincare concern that Cultured products are most suited to?

“Everyone is invited, and everyone can benefit. It’s about helping your skin help itself, about making your skin work better – so just like a personal trainer can be for anyone, so can Cultured. Because skin renewal is a key part, it’s fantastic in a radiance, revitalising, dare I say anti-ageing way. The best anti-ageing is prevention, followed by skin looking its radiant, healthiest best for its age.”

At what step in your skincare routine is it most important to look after your microbiome?

“Cleansing, probably. Watch out for the pH, watch out for foam and preservatives.”

What is your favourite Cultured product, and why?

“[Biome One] Serum, serum, serum. It’s healthy skin in a bottle. Lots of fantastic, new-era actives. The texture is deliberately light and silky although it really does pack a hydrating punch. So, it’s gorgeous to apply, easy to spread and just so pleasurable. Lastly, we have just completed a clinical trial proving it does indeed care for your microbiome. Oh, and I should mention that I do definitely feel more ‘glowy’ and less wrinkly – my kids have even confirmed this now and again – when they want something [laughs]! Bottom line? It’s our Thriller, our Sgt. Pepper’s [Lonely Hearts Club Band], our Lemonade, our Odyssey Number 5 (Powderfinger again).”

Want more microbiome skincare? Shop the MECCA edit here – plus, tune into the MECCA Talks podcast later this month, when Rob Calcraft will be chatting all things microbiome (and everything else!) with Kate and Zara.